December 20, 2019

Udall, Heinrich, Cassidy Urge the National Institutes of Health to Transfer NM Chimpanzees to Sanctuary

43 chimpanzees, previously used for medical research, are currently held in Alamogordo NIH facility despite law mandating transfer to national ‘Chimp Haven’

WASHINGTON—Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.)Bill Cassidy M.D. (R-La.), and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) submitted a letter to National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis S. Collins, urging the agency transfer 43 chimpanzees from the Alamogordo Primate Facility on Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico to the national sanctuary system at Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana. 

The letter follows the October decision by NIH announcing that the remaining chimpanzees at the Alamogordo facility will not be transferred to sanctuary. The lawmakers view the decision as a violation of the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act (CHIMP Act), mandating that chimpanzees live their remaining years in a chimpanzee sanctuary. 

“In addition to our general questions about the NIH’s rationale for retaining these chimpanzees that are no longer needed for biomedical research (i.e. “surplus), we are concerned that the NIH’s decision may be contrary to Congress’s intent in passing the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act (CHIMP Act),” the senators wrote.

“The chimpanzees at the Alamogordo Primate Facility are undoubtedly surplus, having lived at the facility for well over a decade without being subjected to any further research,” the senators continued. “Since at least 2015 NIH has acknowledged that these chimpanzees are no longer necessary for research, triggering the NIH’s obligation to retire them. With 43 chimpanzees that are deemed surplus, the NIH now has a legal duty under the CHIMP Act to fulfill its commitment to relocate these chimpanzees to the national sanctuary system. There, these chimpanzees may live out the remainder of their lives under the supervision of caretakers with expertise in maximizing their psychological and physical wellbeing—precisely as Congress envisioned.”

The senators then requested the NIH to provide answers to six questions regarding:

- The facility’s ability to meet the complex physical and psychological needs of the 43 chimpanzees remaining in its care

- The number of remaining staff caring for the animals and their job titles

-Whether or not the chimpanzees have daily access to material to build nests

- Why the chimpanzees in Alamogordo are held in groups smaller than what was determined to be appropriate under a previous NIH Working Group

- A description of the NIH’s obligation and plan to provide the best possible quality of life for these surviving chimpanzees.

- A description of any and all instances in which a chimpanzee has died or has been injured during transport.

“We appreciate continuing to work with you on this matter and appreciate your responsiveness but want to make abundantly clear our displeasure with the NIH’s decision to not send these chimpanzees to sanctuary,” the senators concluded. “We disagree on the NIH’s interpretation of Congressional action and state unambiguously that these chimpanzees need to be transferred to Chimp Haven before the end of the year.”

The full text of the senator’s letter can be found HERE and below:

Dear Director Collins:

We are writing today to express our concern regarding the National Institutes of Health(NIH)’s announcement, made public on October 24, 2019, that it will not send 44 chimpanzees (now down to 43 chimpanzees) held at the Alamogordo Primate Facility on Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico to the national sanctuary system at Chimp Haven in Keithville, LA. In addition to our general questions about the NIH’s rationale for retaining these chimpanzees that are no longer needed for biomedical research (i.e. “surplus”), we are concerned that the NIH’s decision may be contrary to Congress’s intent in passing the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act (CHIMP Act).

Following public outcry over the federal government’s continued ownership of several hundred surplus chimpanzees, and in light of the National Research Council’s 1997 report to the NIH about long-term care and support, Congress passed the CHIMP Act. The CHIMP Act was based on congressional testimony that found sanctuaries to be “cheaper, healthier, and better . . . for the interest of the chimpanzees,” since chimpanzee “medical research facilities are not . . . a suitable environment for . . . long-term holding.” As a result, Congress mandated that NIH provide permanent retirement in the national sanctuary system for chimpanzees owned by NIH.

In light of the extensive testimony and evidence in support of a sanctuary system for these chimpanzees, the Act afforded the NIH—an agency that expressed concerns with this Act as it wound its way through Congress —very little discretion over whether “surplus” chimpanzees would be allowed to go to retire to the sanctuary system. Indeed, in establishing this sanctuary system, Congress stripped the NIH of its discretion over these surplus chimpanzees, mandating that “all surplus chimpanzees owned by the Federal government shall be accepted into the sanctuary system.”   In contrast, neither the CHIMP Act nor its implementing regulations provide NIH the discretion not to transfer a chimpanzee to sanctuary once the determination that it is a “surplus chimpanzee” has been made. 

Congress was well aware of issues related to the age and health of chimpanzees who are received into the sanctuary system. The Senate considered and rejected the NIH’s current position that age or infirmity could be sufficient cause to deny these chimpanzees a transfer, finding that “advanced age or infection” would actually be a compelling reason to admit these chimpanzees.  Further, the House was well aware that chimpanzees who were transferred to sanctuaries may not be in pristine health, observing that these sanctuaries would have “some kind of facilities in there to deal with the health needs.”  That the NIH could now contradict the very reasons Congress found sanctuaries so compelling—that they are “cheaper, healthier, and better” alternatives for aging chimpanzees—is deeply concerning. 

The chimpanzees at the Alamogordo Primate Facility are undoubtedly surplus, having lived at the facility for well over a decade without being subjected to any further research. Since at least 2015 NIH has acknowledged that these chimpanzees are no longer necessary for research, triggering the NIH’s obligation to retire them.  With 43 chimpanzees that are deemed surplus, it appears the NIH now has a legal duty under the CHIMP Act to fulfill its commitment to relocate these chimpanzees to the national sanctuary system. There, these chimpanzees may live out the remainder of their lives under the supervision of caretakers with expertise in maximizing their psychological and physical wellbeing—precisely as Congress envisioned. 

The advanced age and suffering from the inevitable maladies associated with the passage of time that the NIH cites as reason not to transfer is actually why the chimpanzees should be transferred from Alamogordo Primate Facility to the national chimpanzee sanctuary. And this is true whether viewed from the requirements of the CHIMP Act or the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The CHIMP Act did require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish standards for the care (and, ultimately, transport) of these chimpanzees in accordance with the AWA.  Yet the AWA does not require absolute certainty that the transport of primates poses no risk. To the contrary, the regulations make clear that a primate that is “obviously ill, injured, or in physical distress,” must not be transported, “except to receive veterinary care for the condition.”  Put differently, the AWA regulations, like the CHIMP Act itself, provide that old and infirm primates may be transferred for the purpose of obtaining veterinary care.  

That the risk of death comes from anesthesia during transport does not by itself justify NIH’s effort to retain these chimpanzees, with regulations and a statute that are silent on that particular circumstance. This silence is likely due to the fact that the Act is almost twenty years old and Congress may not have foreseen the NIH’s long overdue delay in transferring these chimpanzees. Whatever the reason, Congress was not silent on the most important fact: all surplus chimpanzees owned by the Federal government shall be accepted into the sanctuary system, and advanced age and illness are the exact reasons for this transfer, not a basis to subvert the goals of a sanctuary system.

Aside from the broad, overarching concerns about the NIH’s rationale, we are also concerned and have questions about the staffing and space available to the chimpanzees at the Alamogordo Primate Facility. Please provide a detailed answer as to the following questions:

-How is this facility able to meet the complex physical and psychological needs of the 43 chimpanzees remaining in its care?

-Please include the number of remaining staff at the Alamogordo Primate Facility and their job titles.

-Do the chimpanzees have daily access to material to build nests?

-Why are all of the chimpanzees in Alamogordo held in groups smaller than what was determined to be appropriate under a previous NIH Working Group?

- Please also describe the NIH’s obligation and plan to provide the best possible quality of life for these surviving chimpanzees.

- Please list and describe any and all instances in which a chimpanzee has died or has been injured during transport.

We appreciate continuing to work with you on this matter and appreciate your responsiveness but want to make abundantly clear our displeasure with the NIH’s decision to not send these chimpanzees to sanctuary. We disagree on the NIH’s interpretation of the underlying laws and regulations and state unambiguously that these chimpanzees need to be transferred to Chimp Haven before the end of the year. It is unacceptable for the NIH to violate the CHIMP Act and allow all Alamogordo chimpanzees to convalesce in the research facility for the remainder of their lives.

Thank you for attention to this urgent matter, we look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,